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Kitchen Cutlery Buying Guide

What you need to know to make the best choices


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There's a reason why on the show, Top Chef, the loser is told to "Please pack your knives and go." That simple sentence is particularly, er, cutting, because knives are the backbone of any chef's arsenal. They care for their knives obsessively, sharpening and honing them frequently, and storing them carefully in knife guards and bags.

For home cooks, too, having the right set of knives can make a world of difference in your cooking. Certain knives are suited for certain types of tasks, and if you're using the correct knife, you'll find cooking easier and more pleasurable.

The Three Essential Knife Shapes

Those 10-piece knife block sets may have you believing otherwise, but you really only need a few different knives to accomplish most cutting tasks. Avoid buying a set, even if it seems like a good deal, unless you are certain that you will frequently use every single knife in the set.

The three knives you're likely to use the most are:

  • Chef's Knife:This large, all-purpose knife can be used to chop vegetables, cut up a chicken, slice meat, mince garlic and herbs and much more. If you watch cooking shows, you'll see that it's typically the knife you'll see a chef using the most, because of its versatility. Chef's knives come in a range of lengths, from 5 to 10 inches. Choose one that's as big as you feel comfortable with, keeping in mind that a longer knife will naturally give you more cutting space. You'll also want to hold the knife and make a few cutting motions with it to see if it feels balanced in your hand and that the handle is comfortable.
  • Paring or Utility Knife: A small, 2- or 4-inch knife is ideal for finer kitchen tasks, like cutting small vegetables and fruits, trimming fat from a piece of meat or slicing a wedge of hard cheese. If you find the tiny paring knives too short, the slightly longer utility knives will give you even more versatility.
  • Serrated Knife:A long (think 9 or 10 inches) serrated knife is important for slicing bread, slicing roasts and cutting very soft fruits and vegetables like tomatoes. This is one knife that you can save money on, buying an inexpensive version since many serrated knives don't resharpen well.

There are many other knife shapes, some of which are quite specialized. As you learn about cutlery shapes you can determine whether or not certain shapes would be useful and gradually add them as needed.

Types of construction:

Many cutlery shoppers get bewildered by the many terms used to describe a knife's consutrction: full tang, stamped, forged, high-carbon, etc. Here's what you need to know:

Forged knives are considered the best-quality. Each one is made individually from individual pieces of metal, and molded under extreme heat to create their shape. Forged knives are heavy, durable, balanced, and will typically hold a sharp edge well.

A stamped knife means that it was punched out of a flattened sheet of steel, then the edges are sharpened. Generally these knives are less expensive and considered not as good of quality. They don't hold their edges as well as a forged knife, and their blades are lighter and more flexible. For some things, such as for a boning knife, this might be an advantage, though.

The tang refers to the metal part of the knife that extends into the handle. A full tang means that the metal from the blade extends within the entire handle (and you can see the metal sandwiched along the edge of the blade). The advantage of a full tang is balance, the handle is slightly heavier, which gives you better stability and control of the knife. Some knives are made with partial tangs, in which the tang only extends along the top of the handle, or a rat-tail tang, which is a thin "tail" of metal that extends into the handle and is fully enclosed within the handle.

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